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The Protagonist’s Relationship With Theme & Structure

By Alex Bloom

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In screenwriting it’s often helpful to think of theme as one side of an argument, as in “There’s no place like home”. One side being “It’s better to leave home for a life of adventure” and the other being “Living a life of adventure is not necessary. What’s important can be found at home”.

In this sense, a script’s theme boils down to The Answer to this argument. But what makes this really resonate is when we are able to see the protagonist’s arrival at this answer after a journey through three acts; with each act representing a different phase of their understanding.

To show you what I mean, let’s break down the protagonist’s understanding of the theme into three acts.

Act 1: The protagonist has no idea what the theme/answer is

Even though the protagonist doesn’t realize it yet, it’s their unawareness of The Answer that’s causing them to be miserable or at odds with the world. Just like in real life, it’s not circumstances that are the problem, but the manner in which they’re reacted to.

Act 2: The protagonist experiences things that bring The Answer into focus

The purpose in act two is to instruct the protagonist in the ways of The Answer. Circumstances should force them to behave as if they understood what the theme’s really about, but because they haven’t yet fully embraced The Answer they find these experiences tough going.

Act 3: With knowledge of The Answer, the protagonist finally realizes what must be done

The matter of faith is essential. The protagonist must believe first in order to reap the benefits. Once they’re willing to risk it all to live The Answer, their world becomes whole again (or not as in the case of a tragedy) and they know how to live the rest of their life.

Here’s a classic comedy, drama and horror movie to illustrate the protagonist’s relationship with theme through three acts.

1) Theme In Comedy: Annie Hall

Theme: However absurd and painful relationships are, we still need them.

1st Act Unawareness of The Answer/Theme

Alvy has lost Annie, and so reflects on past relationships to try and figure out where he messed up. In his relationship with his first wife, Alvy doesn’t want sex and she does, and with his second wife, she doesn’t and he does. In either case, sex was a factor in the demise of the relationship. Alvy has no idea how absurd and painful relationships are at this point.

2nd Act Experiences that Hint at The Answer/Theme

Alvy and Annie get together — he’s fallen in love again. Things start to go wrong when she starts an adult education course and he doesn’t want her to move in. They break up and get back together again. These are all experiences hinting at the answer that relationships are absurd and painful.

3rd Act Faith in The Answer/Theme

Things go well at first, then Annie gets drawn into her singing career and their relationship starts to rapidly deteriorate after visiting LA. Personalities clash – Alvy wants to stay in New York, keep himself to himself, Annie wants to try new things and they break up. It’s only when he flies out to LA to try and win her back but fails, that he realizes relationships suck but we need ‘em.

2) Theme In Drama: The Apartment

Theme: Standing up for your own integrity and principals can bring great rewards.

1st Act Unawareness of The Answer/Theme

In act one, Bud lets his co-workers walk all over him by letting them use his apartment as a hotel. He asks out Fran but doesn’t get anywhere and ends up giving his key to his boss, Sheldrake.

2nd Act Experiences that Hint at The Answer

Experiences begin to clue Bud in to The Answer as he continues to try his luck with Fran and ends up saving her life when she tries to commit suicide. But she still loves Sheldrake. Bud also receives a promotion and a new office, enabling him to learn more about his own integrity and principals.

3rd Act Faith in The Answer/Theme

Bud stops letting his co-workers use his apartment and takes the rap from Fran’s brother for her attempted suicide. To his surprise, Bud gets promoted again by Sheldrake for helping Fran, but is broken when she makes the choice to be with Sheldrake, not him. Once he finally learns The Answer, Bud denies Sheldrake access to his apartment and quits – he’s decided to become a “human being.” Learning this, Fran decides to go to him.

3) Theme In Horror: The Shining

Theme: All human progress is an illusion meaning the mistakes of the past are doomed to be repeated because human nature is inherently flawed. 

1st Act Unawareness of The Answer/Theme

Jack and his family represent the modern “American Family” and the theme is a reference to the treatment of Native Americans. At the Overlook Hotel (built on an old Native American burial site) he feels the seclusion will be the perfect environment for him to write. He learns that ten years ago the previous caretaker murdered his own family before killing himself, but Jack is obvious to the theme at this point and takes the job.

2nd Act Experiences that Hint at The Answer/Theme

Danny soon starts to have supernatural experiences including seeing the murdered girls of the previous caretaker. Jack, meanwhile, has an overwhelming sense of déjà vu in the hotel and awakes from a dream in which he killed Wendy and Danny. After being accused by Wendy of having harmed Danny, Jack meets the ghostly bartender who tells him he’s “always been the caretaker.” His experiences are hinting at The Answer.

3rd Act Faith in The Answer/Theme

Armed with the realization that history is repeating itself, Jack degenerates into a lunatic, and tries to kill Wendy and Danny. Jack falls for Danny’s trick of retracing his steps in the snow (an old Native American trick) and freezes to death in the night. As a coda, we see a photograph on the ballroom wall — “Overlook Hotel, July 4th Ball, 1921.” July 4th is a significant date as it signifies the date America was officially taken from the Native Americans, while Jack’s appearance in the photograph suggests a replaying of events. These horrific things have happened in the hotel (America) and will continue to do so. 

About Alex Bloom

Alex Bloom founded the screenplay consultancy Script Reader Pro with the idea of hiring only working screenwriters and filmmakers. They offer a wide range of actionable script coverage services and a hands-on screenwriting course designed to cut out much of the “fluff” found in the world of screenwriting.

Screenwriting Article by Alex Bloom

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